Loss Defines

Quite a while ago, probably at least three years, a friend asked me if I would write something about loss. He’s probably forgotten he asked since it’s been so long or it’s been so long that his need no longer exists. I told him I would, but I needed to wait until my life was in a better place. At that time, I was dealing with the loss of a job I really enjoyed and was struggling to find work. I was scared about my future and spent too many sleepless nights avoiding pity parties. Writing about loss was the last thing I needed to do right then.

But that seed was planted in my brain and every once in a while it pops up asking to be nurtured and noticed. I was reminded of it over the weekend (see Carl’s Birthday) as I told a group of people that “I lost my mother” and two years later “I lost my father.” When I speak out loud about their deaths, that is the verbiage that naturally flows off my tongue. As I spoke the word lost to this group, I was reminded of my friend’s request to write about loss. This writing has been floating around in my brain for the better part of thirty-some hours. I think it’s time to honor my friend’s request.

To me, death is not a passing, it’s a loss. My parents not only died, I lost them. They were taken when I wasn’t ready, when they weren’t ready, when I needed them. And so it follows that I believe we experience many types of losses in the course of our lives. For example, about a month ago one of my nieces opened the door to let out her dog and her treasured pet bird flew out the door. When a pet runs (or flies) away, that loss can be even more traumatizing than if the pet had died of natural causes. Another example is the loss of a job, no matter if you enjoyed it or not. It causes a change to your lifestyle and your ability to make ends meet. With financial hardship may come the loss of your house or apartment, even a car. Lack of funds can mean the cancellation of a trip you’ve been looking forward to. It may mean giving up on dreams and goals.

In my first year of college, I was living in a dorm and my two brothers who still lived at home were ready to move on to apartments. I saw the dorm as temporary housing. My brothers didn’t want the responsibility of managing the house anymore. And so all my seven siblings talked about it without me and made the determination that the house would be sold. No one cared to think about where I was going to go over Christmas break when the college sent everyone home or when the college year was finished. I was seeing a therapist at the time and he tried to explain to me that when people experience a loss, they grieve. It was his way of explaining why I was feeling so depressed about losing the only home I had ever known. The therapist told me that loss brings feelings of grief, and our brain/body has a memory of feelings. When the grief feeling is triggered, then a flood of memories of other times we felt grief parade through our brains.

I feel fortunate that I was given that wisdom and perspective at such a young age. For at every major milestone in my life—high school graduation, college graduation, wedding, buying a house, birth of each child—hidden in the mix of happy and exuberant emotions was always the reminder of the loss of my parents. They weren’t there to share in my “dreams” that had come true. Oh, don’t for a minute think every milestone in my life has been maudlin and without joy. That is far from my reality! I merely want to point out that loss can easily be in the mix of many other emotions, even happy ones.

More recently, in May of 2010, I had a loss I had never experienced before. And it was so traumatic, it made me physically ill for three or four days. The hard drive on my computer crashed. Unfortunately for me, the 300-page novel I had been writing for many years was on that computer. And so was another novel, about 75 pages long, that I had just recently started. I had a print out of the longer novel from about six months prior. Not the final version, but enough of it that I was able to retype (and edit) the novel and give it new life. (I now have three electronic copies of it.) The shorter novel was gone. No way to bring it back. I also lost about two years’ of journaling and scores of other writings. I grieved for several weeks over these losses. I was so angry at my shortsightedness for not having backups. I ignored the well-intentioned comments friends and family made. “Just rewrite it. It was your idea. You wrote it once, you can write it again.” Sorry, folks. Those words were never coming back.

As a child, when I or one of my siblings would experience a bad day or make a big mistake or be faced with a serious challenge, my father liked to tell us the experience would build character. I’ve often joked that I have enough character and don’t need any more, thank you very much. But just as difficult challenges shape us and teach us, so does loss define us. I wouldn’t be the person I am today had my parents lived long lives. I doubt I would cherish the home I live in today as much as I do had I not been forced to give up my childhood home before I had another permanent place to live. Losing my “dream” job in the summer of 2008 and most of my savings two months later in the market crash brought about a fiscal conservatism in me that never before existed. (And out of necessity I had been very frugal for most of my life!) Being in job search mode for thirty-six months shaped my self-esteem and helped me to understand where I place value in a job. It also showed me that I put too much value in a job’s title or how high a job is on the corporate ladder.

Author Dean Koontz writes about loss in The Darkest Evening of the Year. “We must know the pain of loss; because if we never knew it, we would have no compassion for others, and we would become monsters of self-regard, creatures of unalloyed self-interest. The terrible pain of loss teaches humility to our prideful kind, has the power to soften uncaring hearts, to make a better person of a good one.”

My children have been blessed all of their lives. The two grandparents they knew while growing up are still alive. They have not lost a parent, a sibling, a cousin. Certainly they have had their share of challenges, and some of the friends they have made only passed through their lives a short time instead of staying a lifetime. I’m sure if I asked each of them, each would agree she has experienced some kind of loss in her life. I suppose the greatest loss each has overcome was when their dad and I divorced. It was a dream shattered for all of us.

It is inevitable that someday I will need to parent my daughters through a moment of monumental loss. I can only hope I will have some words of wisdom to guide them in that moment.

Carl’s Birthday

We went to an 80th birthday party today. I first met Carl when I was in 10th grade. His daughter and I had lockers side-by-side at school and we became fast friends. She invited me to their house, which is when I met Carl and his fabulous wife.

This was not a fun time in my life. My mother had died the year before and my father would die a year later. I was grieving. I was confused. And I was lost. And I also felt like I was a walking billboard, an ad for “strange and weird people.”

Carl and Jean welcomed me into their home and accepted me just as I was. It was my first experience with that kind of acceptance. I didn’t have to be strong for them. I didn’t have to be a perfect teen. I was free to be me. How liberating!

I stayed friends with their daughter (still am!) and every once in a while I passed through their lives or they through mine. When I celebrated my 18th birthday, they took me out for a very special dinner. When I graduated from college, they came to the celebration. When I announced my engagement, they sat down with me and asked some very tough questions about what my future would look like with this person. (They were so wise, and I was so naïve.) Even so, they helped me find a wedding photographer. When each of my daughters was born, they sent a gift or called with congratulations and set up plans to get together. We didn’t see each other often, but we stayed in touch. My friendship with their daughter likely kept them up to date on all things happening in my life.

When I got divorced, they offered understanding and compassion and bit back the words, “We told you so.” A couple of years later, they heard I was in a new relationship and invited us over to a gathering of friends. They accepted the new man in my life. And gave me warm and loving hugs of encouragement. They have mostly remained in the shadows of my life, but always on the periphery, ready to step in if I asked. Funny how I never thought I could ask. They weren’t my parents. But I desperately wanted them to be.

Okay, so today my husband and I went to Carl’s birthday party. Each person was asked to stand up and tell the story of how we met Carl. And so I gave the condensed version of my story. And I thanked Carl (and Jean) for allowing me to step into their lives.

At the end of the speeches, Carl got his chance for a rebuttal. He only spoke for a few minutes. He thanked everyone for coming. Offered thanks for the kind words we had all offered. And then he said he needed to call out two of the hundred or so people in the room. The first person he called out was a woman whose career he helped start, who later went on to do some fantastic things in regard to human rights. And the second person he called out, was me. He talked about my strength and courage and how I was the glue that kept my family united through those torturous years. “What a remarkable woman,” he called me.

All these years, I had no idea those were his feelings. And tonight I am absolutely overwhelmed. I don’t feel worthy of those accolades, but I’ve always looked to Carl as someone with wisdom, someone I could trust. I have a feeling, that someday I will look back on this day and be able to say, Carl’s words altered my life.

Parenting about Elections

Am I better off than I was four years ago?

When I first became an elected official in 1990, only two of my four daughters were born. Those two were precocious and much, much wiser than their ages of two and four. A few years later I added another daughter, and then a fourth. They all grew up with a first-hand knowledge of how government “happens.” Suffice it to say, because of my public service experience, my daughters have a better than average knowledge of elections. Every three years I was up for re-election for my local office. I ended up serving a total of 17 years before I moved out of my district in 2006. The girls were involved quite a bit in each of those local elections. But in 2002, they were heavily involved when I ran for the office of state legislator. All four of my daughters participated in many campaign events, including at least one parade every weekend from early May to late September. They understand the importance of photo shoots and public appearances and fundraisers. They also understand the definition of conviction.

So every time an important election comes around, inevitably discussions turn to politics in our house. Even so, I was quite surprised when Emily called me more than a week ago to talk about the upcoming presidential election. You see, Emily doesn’t usually call me unless she needs money or needs something else or wants to tell me what a horrible Mother I am. But this call was only about the election. She had an idea of who she wants to vote for and she said she needed to bounce her ideas off of someone she trusts to give her a straight answer. I nearly fell out of my chair. We had a great discussion. “Your future depends on the outcome of this election,” I told her. “You think I don’t realize that?!” she nearly yelled at me. She said many of her friends have been repeating one-liners and zingers, but when she presses them to back up their words those same kids don’t have any opinions or facts. Emily was pretty frustrated about that. And I smiled. Of course, it helped that this was a phone conversation and she couldn’t see my facial expressions.

Then over the weekend, I checked in with Kate to see how she and her family are doing. They’re fighting colds, but doing well. Of course I had to ask The Question. “Yes, I’m voting. I’ve done my research and I know who I’m voting for. But you’re not going to like it.” She’s voting for a third-party candidate. She’s right, I don’t like it. But I respect the fact that she took the time to learn where the candidates stand on the issues most important to her. She’s making an educated vote. I can’t ask for anything more.

Then last night, Brianna was home for dinner. My husband and I were talking about tonight’s debate, which led me to ask Brianna if she was planning to vote. “Hell, no,” she was quick to respond. “Why not?” I asked. “This is your first time old enough to vote. I’ll go with you. I’ll show you how it’s done.” Still she refused. “It’s critical to your future,” I pleaded. She wasn’t accepting any of it. She politely told me, “I don’t know who to vote for and I don’t want to go vote for a candidate just because you or someone else tells me to.” I wanted to hug her and scold her at the same time. But she didn’t give me a chance. She got up and headed to her room. Those of you with teenagers are well aware that sometimes parents have such a short timeframe to discuss things with our kids before they lose patience with us or their attention goes to something else. Even though I didn’t think this discussion was confrontational, Brianna did. I’ll have to revisit the discussion with her again. There’s time.

As Brianna headed up to her room, it dawned on me that I haven’t yet had “the talk” with Rose. Newly married (with a name change) and a change of address will create some challenges for her. Hopefully she’ll consider her civic duty too important to be side railed by those things.

So back to my question. Am I better off than I was four years ago?

When I came into this second marriage in 2006, I was holding my own financially. I wasn’t well off by any means, but I wasn’t going in the red very often when it came time to pay the bills. My husband had just finished up a very successful career and had amassed some wealth, but it had been evenly divided when his divorce was finally settled just a few months after we started dating. When we blended our families and our ledgers, we were not on even ground financially, but we weren’t all that far off either. About that same time I was promoted with a large raise and life was good.

And then the other shoe dropped. In July 2008, I lost my high-paying job. I realized very quickly that the house we purchased was more than we could afford, but the housing market was bursting and we were trapped. We figured we could hold on until I found another job. Two months later, we lost nearly 60 percent of our investments in The Crash. By November 2008, I was deeply depressed and grabbing on to “hope and change” like the majority of my fellow Americans.

It took me thirty-four months to be offered a permanent job, at half the wage I had previously earned. I accepted it without even having to think it over for a millisecond. I was thrilled to have medical insurance again and a steady income, albeit so much smaller than our needs. There is a value to steady income that cannot be measured in dollars and cents.

I’ve been in my job about 17 months now. Today we are still struggling simply because I’m earning so much less than I was in early 2008. We’ve managed to scrimp and save and pay off some of our debt, but we have a long way to go still. I picked up a second job to help, but sometimes I wonder if the stress it creates causes more damage than the little bit of extra money. We are still in our expensive home, only because the market fell and we have no hope of selling it for what we owe on it.

My husband gave up looking for a job a couple of years ago. Past the “normal” retirement age, he says there is no one who will hire him with so many younger guys searching for jobs. He speaks truth. About six months ago he decided to start a business, but it’s taking a very long time to heat up. He struggles with motivation and drive, two essential elements to a start-up.

The way I see it, the U.S. got hit with a disastrous turn of events beginning in August 2008. Unlike anything we’d experienced in our lifetimes, experts struggled with finding a way out of the dark hole we were in. The first year of Obama’s presidency was spent trying to figure out how bad it was and what our options were. He put a few things in place and tried to do more, but he was stopped by partisan fighting. The divided aisles in Congress haven’t been this wide in decades. Senator McCain could not have done more had he been elected. The mentality in D.C. beginning in 2009 was to not compromise. Period. In 2010, people were dissatisfied with Congress and sent a message with their votes. Unfortunately, Congress had ear plugs in and they were all listening to their own brand of music. They will go down as the most lame Congress in recent history.

Slowly, as molasses flows in January, we are coming out of the dark mess of 2008. We all knew it was going to take time. Did we like it? Hell, no. We’re all frustrated and sick and tired of being short on cash and overloaded with bills. We are so over this. But we need to remember, the mess that was created in 2008 was unprecedented. And recovering from that is going to take many more years. As much as I want to believe we’ll be back to the good days in 2013, I know that’s not realistic—no matter who wins on November 6. This is a mess!! And it’s going to take time.

So take a breath, and think it through. Do what my daughters have done. Sit down and write a list of the values and principles that are critical to your beliefs. Then do your research and find out which candidate supports, or most closely aligns with, your positions. Don’t listen to the polls. And for Heaven’s sake, don’t listen to the 30-second sound bites on the evening news. Listen to your own self. Your future depends on it.

Is this Midlife Crisis?

Not sure why, but lately I keep feeling like my time on this Earth is limited. Okay, so maybe it’s just an irrational fear. Or maybe it’s talk of the Mayan calendar (and the world) coming to an end. Or global warming fears. Maybe it’s hormonal changes playing tricks on my brain. Or that I messed up my back this week and have a throbbing sciatic nerve. It might have more to do with the fact that I’ve neared the age when my father died.

When I turned 46, the age at which my mother died, I never experienced any of these feelings. Perhaps that’s because I was just a year into a second marriage and I was in the peak of my career in publishing. Everything was going along just fine. But, oh man, everything came to a screeching halt the following year. I lost my job. The economy tanked and the housing market collapsed. We had to tighten our budget immediately. We cancelled trips. We downsized Christmas. And my youngest daughter took her first steps onto The Wayward Path. I slammed hard and deep into a dark depression and the next three years became my “winter of discernment.” Yes, it was ugly.

Slowly things have improved. I don’t have such dark days anymore, and the “cloudy” days I do experience don’t come with the same frequency as they once did. I have a job, ever so grateful for it even though I’m frightfully underemployed. I can’t say feelings of overwhelming depression are making me feel my time is running out. And I am not suicidal!

One would think that I would have started feeling this way a year ago when I celebrated the big 5-0 milestone. Yet it’s only in the last few months that I’ve been pondering this whole thing, when I started noticing more aches and pains. Yes, I’m carrying more weight than I ever have in my life. (And I’m attempting to do something about that!) And I just experienced a six-month period of very high stress with planning one daughter’s wedding while trying to keep another daughter from tumbling over the cliff. I can’t help but wonder if this is the precursor to turning fifty-two next summer. My father died at fifty-two. But then I think, that’s ridiculous!

About two months ago, the week before my daughter’s (Rose) wedding, my oldest daughter (Kate) came to stay with us and help me with all the preparations. It was a wonderful gift to spend so much time with Kate and my granddaughter. We did a lot of shopping and each time we returned home Kate offered to carry in all the bags. At first I thought it was very kind and thoughtful of her, but then one time I noticed the load she was carrying. On one shoulder was a purse and a diaper bag and on that hip was her daughter. But Kate’s other hand was free, so she grabbed as many of the heavier bags (with handles) as she could. I was left to carry one very light bag in each hand. I felt ridiculous. Did she think I am growing old and can no longer carry heavy bags? Was she worried I’d have a stroke or that I’d slip and fall and hurt myself? Well, okay, lately I have those concerns too.

And then there’s those moments when I can’t remember a person’s name, or I struggle to find the specific word I wanted to say. Those moments absolutely terrorize me because my bloodline is so thick with Alzheimer’s disease. Just seeing that word can make all my irrational fears come alive.

The other day I watched an interview with a famous movie actor and he talked about how at 54 he feels his time is running out. He said his bucket list hasn’t grown any, but he has an overwhelming feeling of needing to get some things accomplished quickly. So maybe I’m just “normal” and these are midlife crisis kinds of thoughts.